Category Archives: Facebook

Big Data in Education – Big Brother!

The recent shenanigans surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook reveals reasons why we should be very wary of Big Data in education. The argument is often advanced that computerization of the classroom will allow for the collection of large amounts of data on a student’s progress and for increased personalization and more effective pedagogical approaches to be adopted. Teachers are limited and when asked to teach large classes especially, are often unable to give the kind of individual attention we would like. This idea harks back to the teaching machines beloved of Behaviourist psychology and the dream that programmed learning paths could be built into instructional design in such a way as to deliver the right content at the right time for each individual, making learning much more efficient. I have two problems with this notion. Firstly it ignores the crucial understanding of learning as a social construct, reducing it to a solitary interaction between student and teacher (machine). And secondly it dovetails so neatly with the great push for Taylorist efficiency and the erosion of privacy as to raise alarm bells around our civil liberties. If they can gather so much data about us when we are young and in school, how on earth will they use it later when a student has graduated? Will that data be destroyed or sold on for profit? Will the data belong to the student, the school or the educational publishers producing the software?

At the risk of sounding like a Conspiracy Theorist, I do believe that it is incumbant on us as teachers to do everything in our power to protect the data of our students, especially such sensitive data as intimate knowledge of learning patterns and behaviours! If I know how you learn, I have great insight into how to control your behaviour, what shoes you will buy, or how you will vote!

As important as this point is, I do not want to dwell on it. Learning is not individual, It is social, as Vygotsky pointed out. We learn first socially and then internalize that knowledge individually. The distance between the two, Vygotsky termed the Proximal Zone of Development. We need more experienced others to show us not only how to do things or to pass on knowledge, but also to show us what is knowable. What we believe it is desirable to know is also socially constructed. I learn to do things first with the help, guidance and instruction of others, and then, after a while, am able to do it myself. Can machines fulfil the role of the more experienced other? In some ways, yes. Pressey’s testing machines from the 1920s or Skinner’s teaching machines from the 1950s demonstrated that programmed learning could be used with some degree of success. However, these machines, and the computer programs that replaced them have not been dubbed drill and kill for nothing! While there is some research evidence that they were successful for weaker students, their interface and relentless diet of machine delivered question and answer killed all motivation and they lost favour as the fortunes of Behaviourism waned.

As Constructivist learning theories gained traction, learning machines were ditched in favour of new theories about how machines could be used in the classroom. Seymour Papert’s influential Constructionism and approaches such as Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow came into vogue. Computers were to be used by students to author content and as tools for active learning. But beyond this, with the advent of the Internet, computers came to be seen as above all else tools for communication and collaboration, well suited for affording contact between students. Google docs, with its capacity to allow multiple users to author a single document simultaneously unlocked the power of collaboration. Skype could bring other students from across the globe into a classroom, or allow videos to be exchanged across continents. These are hugely engaging uses, and if used properly, can have enormous educational benefits. But they depend on being almost invisible. When you are collaborating in a Google hangout or a Google doc you are not concerned about the technology, you are engaging with other people’s minds! Learning is social, meaning we learn by, with and from others.

The notion of the computer as a device that could track student progress and provide just the right input and feedback at just the right time never quite went away, however, and the growing capacity of computers to do this has led to a resurgence in the belief in personalized teaching machines. Many platforms allow student progress to be tracked and content unlocked depending on progress. Khan Academy, for example has such an interface, and programs such as MyMaths allow teachers to track progress on a dashboard. While this may seem innocuous and indeed beneficial, the drill and kill effect is often cited by students who resist, or try to subvert such programs when they are used in the classroom. These programs are sold in the name of personalization and with a Big Data tagline. The technology may improve, but at the moment these uses of technology are viewed by students as boring and alienating.

And if the technology improves, the Conspiracy Theorist in me starts to be afraid, really afraid!


Learning in the Blender!

I have just posted an article on Blended Learning in the Teacher’s Monthly and I wanted to share some thoughts I’ve been mulling over about some of the options available to us as teachers once we decide to put our classes through the blender!

One way of looking at Blended Learning is to see it as simply bringing another channel into the classroom, hooking the classroom up to the wider world via the Internet. This opens up a wealth of possibilities, and much of the challenge inherent in Blended Learning is wrapped up in teasing out the wheat from the chaff. Every school is different, every class, every student, every teacher is different, and this makes this process a journey of individual discovery. Anyone who talks about not re-inventing the wheel doesn’t really know what they are talking about. In many ways Blended Learning is constantly about re-inventing wheels.

I am currently working with a teacher in Brazil, looking for ways to link up one of my classes to his class. We are considering Blogs, Skype, Twitter and Facebook at the moment. I have no idea which of these channels will prove the best match between the needs of his class and mine, but I do know that the benefits of opening up the two classrooms and establishing an exchange are exciting and is likely to be rewarding for all concerned. Bringing together people from different parts of the world, with different world views and different experiences unlocks huge educational possibilities. Last Wednesday I had my English class go onto the Blog site of the Brazilian class at and read a selection of blogs and post comments. I then got them to write their own blogs.

Now, one can easily see how creating a class blog could open up the classroom to the outside world. What is less clear is to what extent this adds to the learning experience. If it does not, then there is no sense in doing it. To my mind this is a simple test by which we should be assessing the effectiveness of Blended Learning: what does it add to the classroom experience?

Sometimes what it adds is extra functionality enabled by the affordances of a particular technology. A blog site, for example, allows for instant and professional looking publication of student writing, and for rapid feedback from others in the form of comments. When I started teaching, if I wanted to give students authentic writing opportunities I had to get them to write to a local newspaper or photostat a class, or school magazine. The blog is a huge advance on the tools I had at my disposal previously. To my mind, then, if done properly blogging is a crucial tool in a blended learning environment.

Applying the same criteria, I am sure that for most classrooms, in most situations, Skype, Twitter, Facebook would all be seen to add value in that they clearly enable things which could not be done, or were difficult to do without technology. It is not in the technology itself though, that the value lies, and it is important to remember that what might work in one context, might fail dismally in another. The crucial factor, as always, is the teacher, and the passion and commitment they bring to finding the best solutions to any given problem.

The Blended Classroom, thus, is a bit like a blender. You’ve got to hook it up, and give it a whizz, tasting frequently to find the right mixture.

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Posted by on September 26, 2011 in Blended Learning, Blogs, Facebook, Skype, Twitter


Teaching With Facebook

I have written rather scathingly in the past about the potential of Facebook game applications such as Farmville, but clearly it would be lunacy to dismiss Facebook itself as a learning tool. Especially as one who believes that the future lies with social learning!

I went to a presentation of Obami a few days ago and it looked very interesting – a secure, school-based social networking with assignment submission apps in place. As someone who has been searching for a VLE which combines the functionality of Moodle with the advantages of Facebook, Obami looks very interesting, and I will be trying it out soon.

The main argument for using Facebook, rather than a school-based network, however, remains that students are on Facebook, and it is important to engage with them where they are. I have only just begun experimenting with setting up a teacher account, partly because the issues of privacy were concerning to me. There has been quite a lot of debate around what is appropriate and what is not, but I don’t think it is in any way acceptable for a teacher to “befriend” a current student. As much as no teacher would want to see their private updates, or photos shared by students, students would not wish to have their lives laid bare to their teacher! The best way round this is to set up a Fan Page rather than a profile. You can use your profile to create a Page, but only what is visible on the wall of the Page itself will be visible to students. Students need to Like the Page, and visit it to participate in discussions and so on. The teacher’s personal profile is therefore not used, and personal updates will not reflect on the Page.

Some people use Groups for a class, and this has advantages. You will probably want, as I am, to experiment with both to see what suits your own needs best. The main disadvantage of using a group is that you then need a teacher profile which is separate from your personal profile.

Perhaps one of the most promising applications on Facebook pages is the ability to link to a Youtube Channel, allowing you to upload videos to Youtube, which will then display on your Facebook page. This allows you to run your own Khan Academy if you so wish! SlideShare presentations can also be uploaded. In this way, and sharing links, content can be brought into the page.

But it is probably in the ability to create discussions on your page that the real value lies. Facebook is a clumsy interface for storing content – a class Moodle does this so much better. Facebook, however, is superb at getting people to engage with each other in relatively superficial, but potentially probing discussions around links to content online, for example. The ability to view a link, and fire off a quick reaction is what characterises Facebook, and it should be used for this. I wouldn’t attempt to hold profound discussions around a topic. Blogs and class assignments are so much better at this. But for quick snippets relating to the course content, and quick reactions and interactions around it, it seems to work well.

As I say, I have only just begun experimenting with Facebook, but I think it is always important to explore for yourself. What works for one teacher, and one class, might not work in another context. There’s only one way to know if it works for you, and that is to jump in and give it a run.


Facebook Games

Given the undoubted popularity of games on Facebook such as Farmville, Dragons of Atlantis or Glory of Rome, a question which fascinated me is whether any of these games could have any educational applications.

I have seen suggestions that Farmville could be used in teaching Maths, by getting kids to calculate how many crops they’d need to sow, how long it would take to harvest, etc. I’m not sure I quite buy this. The interface itself allows you pretty much to predict these factors, and I’m not convinced that subliminally you’d be learning any Maths. I’m also convinced that if you asked anyone to do the Maths, they’d drop out of the game as soon as possible.

Does the collaborative environment of most of these games lend itself to educational experiences then? Probably, and I have no doubt that they could be used to foster and develop social skills, but in a very limited way. There is not sufficient need to collaborate in the games to foreground it’s use. I’m sure there are better exercises if this is the aim. I have to say that I enjoyed researching this question. The games are certainly addictive. The guilt one feels if one’s crops wither! But ultimately I cannot see Farmville, popular and engaging as it might be, rocking the educational world.

I’ve stopped playing Farmville, just too much guilt! But I am still playing Dragons of Atlantis, and I’d love to be able to promote it as an educational tool. Sadly, though, I cannot. It’s fun, but I don’t think you learn a great deal.

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Posted by on June 11, 2011 in Facebook, Gaming in Education

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